A first reaction to the Bradford by-election is one of anger: that a self-promoting blowhard like George Galloway, who was ejected by his Bethnal Green constituents after only one term, should be so acceptable to the electors of Bradford West; and anger at a political system that allowed this to happen. Whether anger at the system, however, is wholly justified is another matter. Bradford West is not a typical northern working-class constituency. That it is nearly 40 per cent Muslim matters. Galloway’s last victory, in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005, which also has a large Muslim electorate, occurred when Labour still won a comparatively easy victory nationwide. Furthermore, Labour has done well in all previous by-elections in this parliament, which suggests that Bradford is to some extent exceptional. Labour would, therefore, probably be right not to take it too tragically.
On the other hand, it cannot treat it too lightly. Hostility to the war in Afghanistan and to the general anti-terror atmosphere worked up by successive governments has obviously alienated much of the younger Muslim electorate. This is another of Blair’s terrible legacies. The proposition that British foreign policy has nothing to do with such alienation is simply fraudulent, while the argument that we are in Afghanistan to make Britain’s streets secure is recognised as absurd by the great majority of the British electorate. The Labour Party has to do something about this – but it will require some honest thinking and a new rhetoric to do so. Particularly as it involves the Special Relationship. Presumably the result has as well something to do with the present government’s ‘austerity’ and Labour’s very ambivalent relationship to it. Galloway campaigned on an anti-austerity ticket. Labour’s policy of attacking the government’s cuts while saying nonetheless that it will adhere to them is as likely to be as unpopular in Bradford as any other predominantly working-class town – which is why Galloway appears to have had significant support from white voters.
More worrying for Labour, and indeed for the country, has been the apparent breakdown of the tammany system – the ‘mosque vote’ – which underpins Labour in most seats with large Muslim electorates. ‘Tammany’ now has a bad name but in fact it is an effective way of both stabilising a political system and integrating minorities within it. The difficulty is that tammany depends for its success on the universally accepted authority of hierarchies within the community – in this case the authority of Muslim ‘elders’ who usually have close links with the Labour Party. Labour seems to have assumed that the old links and the old deference would work yet again. Plainly they did not. One reason is that Labour has not kept its side of the bargain. The fragmenting of the mosque vote began in 2005, a reaction to the Iraq war, and has never been put together again largely because Labour has taken the Muslim vote for granted, that it was Labour’s whatever a Labour government did.
The by-election has one other significance. The principal beneficiaries of the mosque vote’s fragmentation in 2005 – apart from Galloway – were the Lib Dems. Even a few years ago this is exactly the kind of by-election they would have won. Last Thursday they lost their deposit.